• Joanna

Living in symbiosis with nature – a case for bee conservation and why it’s so important

Updated: Apr 3

Why do we need bees?

When we think about bees, the first thing that springs to mind is obviously honey. Most of the time we don’t think about to what extent we actually depend on bees and how our world would change if they all disappeared – in many aspects!

Bees are an important part of the entire eco system they belong to. Insect-pollinated plants and their fruits provide resources such as food and shelter to other mammals, birds and insects. They are responsible for the beautiful wild - and other flower fields we get to enjoy every summer and are essential in maintaining plant genetic diversity, which is important for healthy soil.

Bees provide about 1/3 of the food we eat and are therefore an important component of our food security system. Most of our local fruit and vegetable crops in the UK are pollinated by some of the over 250 species of bees that live here.

Worldwide there are 25000 different species (out of which only 4 species are honey bees)!

Did you know that some crops will need one specific bee species for the most efficient pollination? And some crops, such as market-quality strawberries, even require pollination by a combination of species!

Bee pollination is even better for our health! Those crops are huge sources of vitamins A & C and minerals such as Calcium & Fluoride and have, as opposed to hand pollinated crops, a higher density of nutrients. Which means we would have to buy and eat more fruit and veg from the latter crops to receive the same amount of nutrients we’d get from be pollinated crops.

Speaking of hand pollinated crops – if farmers were to switch to this practice, they would have to spend £1.8 billion a year on pollen and labour alone! I would imagine that if that happens, they would require huge government subsidies to be able to continue to yield a similar harvest, which would eventually have an effect on our taxes.

Bees clearly provide numerous benefits to us humans and it is in our own best interest to protect and conserve the populations we still have.

I think we’ve all heard this alleged quote by Albert Einstein?

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have 4 years left to live”

– there is no proof that he actually said that, but I think it’s safe to say that if they really did disappear, it would be pretty devastating and humans are not prepared for it.

What actually is happening to the bee population?

One of the main reasons for the declining bee colonies is habitat loss: 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK have disappeared since 1945. This is due to urbanisation and modern farming practices, which have shifted to a system with large monocrops (meaning the farmer will grow only one single crop on the same land, which – by the way – is also detrimental to the soil, as this needs a diversity of plants to get the required nutrients from, but that is a whole other topic) which has an impact on the availability of resources for bees.

At the same time the chemical input, such as synthetic herbicides and insecticides (to kill unwanted pests and weeds), is increased, which again reduces the food available to bees.

Neonicotinoids, a relatively new insecticide, reduces the bees’ breeding success, their metabolic efficiency and disease resistance (if it doesn’t kill them directly) and are considered the number 1 killer of bees nowadays.

Of course climate change plays a role in the disappearing bee populations as well. With the temperamental weather and changing seasonal patterns, the timing of plant flowering and bee emergence is disrupted, resulting in wild bees emerging before or after enough food is available.

Since 1953 there has also been a 78% decline in bee keepers in the UK, partly due to low honey prices dissuading people from taking up bee keeping. This again is linked to a 53% decline in honey bee colonies in the UK. See how it’s all connected?

Is there anything we can do?

Yes! Luckily I can end this depressing report with something positive. We can all do little things to help the bees survive.

  • If you have a garden, terrace or any patch of soil available to you, plant some wildflowers!

As I mentioned before, one of the main reasons of the bee decline is the lack of resources for them to feast on. With a wildflower patch in your own garden, you are providing nectar-rich plants and - if you let them grow high enough - you are also providing shelter.

  • Vote for parties that care about the environment. Write to your MP and tell them that this is important to you! They care about your vote, so you will most likely get an answer with their stance on the topic. At the moment this is regulated at EU level and they have already banned some neonicotinoids.

  • Keep up to date with campaign groups like SumOfUs or Friends Of The Earth! Thanks to their petitions and actions, they are continuously fighting for harmful pesticides to be banned and have successfully applied pressure to many governments. By simply adding your name to a petition or donating a small amount every month, you are directly helping bee populations.

  • If you eat honey, support bee keepers that keep the bee at the centre of their approach (as opposed to the honey/harvest). Honey bees produce honey for themselves as food for the winter months. The conventional method is taking the honey from them (with little to no regard to many of the bees’ lives) and replacing it with sugary water, which leaves them weak and nutrient-depleted for the coming year.

Ethical bee keeping ranges from so-called balanced bee keeping (where honey is only taken when plentiful and appropriate and doesn’t impact the bees) to bee conservation, where bees are encouraged to take control, produce a hive in its natural form & shape with minimal disturbance. Here honey is taken, if at all, when there is true excess and only in the spring, once a hive has survived the winter. This obviously comes at a much higher price than conventional supermarket honey, but considering the price bees are paying for it, makes it more than appropriate in my opinion. Honey shouldn’t be used as a common spread on our morning toast and can be easily replaced by agave or maple syrup.

The only time I think consuming honey makes sense is as a natural remedy and brings me back to us living in symbiosis with nature.

I believe we can all benefit from each other – ethical bee keepers and conservationists, the bees and us.

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